Broader city council power still has limits

Changing the legal classification of the city of Port Orchard to that of a “code city” might prompt those wary of government power to wonder whether it’s a good or bad idea.

Perhaps the more important thing to worry about is the behavior of city officials, rather than any change in their authority.

The city council would have much the same legislative power as a “code city” that it has without the change in classification, but any question about its power would be approached in a different way.

In its current classification as a “second-class city,” the council members have the power to do what is expressly stated or necessarily implied in state laws governing their actions.

Essentially, they should approach any proposed new policy with the belief that they need to be sure they have been given the authority to enact it into law.

If the city changes to code city status, they could fairly presume that they have the authority to enact a new policy unless they become aware of a prohibition in the constitution or statutes that prohibits such action.

Unless they take it as a serious matter to determine whether the policy would be in conflict with the constitution or a statute, their behavior might change to the point that they create problems rather than solutions.

It seems obvious that presuming they have the authority to do what they want as a code city will turn out to be correct in most cases.

Among the provisions in statutes governing the authority of code cities is this statement: “The legislative body of each code city shall have all powers possible for a city or town to have under the Constitution of this state, and not specifically denied to code cities by law.” (RCW 35A.11.020)

But, as the council should have learned in the matter of changing the mayor’s position to full-time and increasing the pay, it always needs to know the limits of its authority.

In that earlier situation, the members knew they could set the pay and thought they could raise it and later reduce it; but learned afterward that the constitution prohibits reducing the pay during the mayor’s term.

Even when they should have been operating with the understanding that they need to find the authority in law to do what they want, they didn’t discover until too late that they couldn’t revisit the subject and reduce the pay if they wanted.

With a change to code city status, they may be tempted to give so little attention to determining their authority before acting that they will inadvertently step over a line they didn’t take the time to find.

Code city status appears to be a good thing, since it offers the broadest authority to elected officials who are closest to the people.

Rather than being limited to whatever the legislature has thought to enact as a law authorizing the council to act, the city council can do virtually anything not prohibited.

There is no need to go to the legislature and attempt to pass a new law to fill a small but aggravating gap in the council’s authority, which is probably the main reason code city status was created by the legislature more than four decades ago.

Most cities have already changed to code city status, but in all those years nothing prompted Port Orchard to join the crowd — which is perhaps the best indication that there is little practical difference from the viewpoint of either residents or elected officials.

City residents may never notice that the city is operating under a different classification that grants broader power to the council.

No big issue prompted the city officials to consider this change, so it isn’t as though they are champing at the bit to get started on something.

If they treat it as part of their job to ensure that they don’t exceed their authority, another four decades may go by in which no one even wonders about the city’s classification.

But if they adopt the mindset that they have the power to do what they want until someone else brings a limit on their power to their attention, it won’t be the city’s classification that causes the problem.

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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